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Neurobiology and Behavior, Week 1

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. Leave whatever thoughts in progress you think might be useful to others, see what other people are thinking, and add thoughts that that in turn generates in you.

Your're free to write about whatever came into your mind this week, but if you need something to get you started, what do you think of the idea that everything we talk about, the sky, the self, the mind, is a construction of the brain?

JJLopez's picture

On the Brain

I thought that the idea that everything is a construction of the brain is somewhat interesting however, I don't fully agree with this.  Yes, the brain is the main reason why we experience (see, think, hear, feel, etc)everything thing around us.  It also includes how we experience our own thoughts, but I don't think that everything is constructed by the mind.  The chair I sit on is still a chair, and the laptop I use is still a laptop, regardless of what my mind is doing.  This theory makes me think that, because my mind isn't constructing it then it doesn't exist, which I don't think is true at all.  Someone with mental illness perhaps isn't aware of everything going on around them at all times, but it doesn't mean that because their mind isn't "constructing" everything means that things aren't happening around them.  
I do think that brain equals behavior, as Prof. Grobstein pointed out.  I would like to learn more about the way behavior is affected by the brain with more details.  I work with children, and I have seen children behave in peculiar ways (ex: flapping their hand like a bird to release excessive amounts of energy).  Why does he do that, and what in his brain is telling him to do that?
I think that behavior is a way the brain outwardly expresses things such as emotions, and thoughts, whether consciously or unconsciously.  Also, I think that behavior is affected by daily experiences such as (culture, religion, music, news, other people, and much much more), but chemical reactions in the brain are what allow these internal thoughts to be outwardly expressed through speech and body language.

Paul Grobstein's picture

chairs etc and the brain

Its certainly possible that a chair is still a chair and a laptop a laptop to your mind/brain regardless of what your mind/brain is doing but ... I'll be they are something quite different to a tree or a mouse or a dog.  To go one step further, I'll bet a firehydrant is something quite different to you, a fire(wo)man, and a dog.  So what is it actually?  For more along these lines, see The brain and perception and Chalk art and the brain

MEL's picture

The Brain and Perception


I think our discussion this week about Emily Dickinson’s poem was very interesting. I had always realized that the human brain has a great ability to store information and do work, but I had never thought of it in the terms that “The Brain - is wider than the Sky”. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this statement. It is mind boggling to think that everything we see is a construction of the brain.
I feel that this discussion relates to the experimental psychology course that I am taking. Currently we are learning about perception and how the brain sees images and depth. After taking perception into consideration, I think that everything we see is a construction of the brain. I agree with natmackow’s statement that if a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, it still makes a sound. But I think they way each person individually hears the tree fall or sees the tree fall is a construct of his or her own brain.  Although things in this world exist, the way that a person perceives them or translates them is a perception of his or her own brain. Our eyes see the sky and then our brains perceive the sky as blue (or whatever color your brain perceives as blue).
For example, my psychology teacher showed us an amazing picture of 3D chalk artwork. Although, our brains see a removed piece of sidewalk, it is just a 2D chalk drawing on the sidewalk. This image is a construction of our own brains; the image does not really exist. Here is the link to picture:
Although this picture is an intentional illusion, I think it truly shows us how much the brain’s perception controls our view of the world.  


Paul Grobstein's picture

chalk art and the brain

Fun.  For more by this artist, Julian Beever, see here.   Which of the different ways a Beever drawing looks when seen from different perspectives is the "real" one?  Along similar lines, which of the sounds different people (or animals) hear a tree make does it make if there isn't anyone around to hear it?

cschoonover's picture

brain, behavior, and memory

 In our discussion this past week about how the brain=behavior to be very interesting. It still seems a little hard to believe, however, the evidence is compelling. The complex ability of the brain also brought another thought to mind: how is it that when one or more of our senses is compromised, the others compensate? And why do some people have a greater capacity for memory than others? Is there a correlation between depressed senses and memory?

Helen Keller wrote her autobiography The Story of My Life using a non-braille typewriter. This indicates that she had to have written it from memory, a task I don’t think I could complete. It seems to me that the memory part of the brain becomes more active as a response to the need to survive, an adaptation if you will. As I mentioned in my introduction, my sister has cerebral palsy and is almost blind. She goes through the school day using only her ears to learn. It always shocks me how much more she remembers compared to me. She can recall, ten years later, who gave her a certain holiday gift, or a conversation that happened many months ago.  I guess what I am really wondering is does the body’s inability to utilize a certain sense cause the brain to search for another method to come to the same end point? And are there other manifestations of this phenomenon besides memory? If this is true, then this is further evidence that the brain dictates behavior.
meroberts's picture

Compensation for loss of sense

"I guess what I am really wondering is does the body’s inability to utilize a certain sense cause the brain to search for another method to come to the same end point? And are there other manifestations of this phenomenon besides memory?"


The brain does exactly that! It's very interesting that you ask that question because as we were discussing that topic in class, I remembered something I had once talked about in another neuroscience class. The story was actually covered by the news. There was a boy, Ben, in California who lost his sight when he was just a baby. As Ben grew up, he learned to rely on other senses to complete his daily activities. He actually uses echolocation, like bats and dolphins! Here is a link to the story:

There's actually a whole series on YouTube about Ben. It's pretty interesting and rather inspiring.

Paul Grobstein's picture

sensory substitution

A very active area of research in lots of directions, following up on some earlier work/suggestions by Paul Bach-y-Rita.  Cf Can you see with your tongue?  Its probably also telling us some important things about "normal" sensation.  Cf From five senses to synesthesia and beyond

natmackow's picture

The Brain and Reality

On one hand, I think it is very accurate to declare everything a construction of the brain. What would the sky, the trees, the world be to an organism if they could not ascribe to it some sort of meaning? What would the people around us be if we were unable to create a visual image of them, communicate with them, try to understand them? The world and the objects, organisms and the plethora of potential ideas we form with regards to these would be nothing if we were unable to define, identify, and interpret them.

On the other hand, if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes. If we were unable to perceive or construct the world around us, it wouldn’t mean that the world and everything within does not exist. An earthworm has a very simple nervous system and cannot perceive the world in the way that we do. Thus, an earthworm’s brain or cerebral ganglion would not be able to contain the sky, as Emily Dickenson stated the human brain can.

Thursday’s class got me thinking about this. While I know that everything around us is really there, whether our brains have the ability to construct it or not, the way in which each individual perceives the world around them is different. Our brains truly do determine the objects around us and how we make sense of them. This is especially relevant to individuals with, for example, autism or psychological disorders, who comprehend objects, actions, and surroundings in a way that is drastically different from a majority of individuals. So now I have a question for everyone else. What is reality? How do we know that what our brains construct is actually true?


Paul Grobstein's picture

avoiding "reality" and its problems

Maybe there is "something" there, but "things" only come into existence when, as you say, we give "meaning" to that something?  The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said (more or less) "About that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."  Perhaps that holds for "What is reality"?  It is there, but doesn't become "things" until we (and other organisms) give meaning to it?  In language or otherwise? For more along these lines, see chairs, etc and the brain

Serendip Visitor's picture

It's sort of odd to consider

It's sort of odd to consider the idea that the world around us could simply be a construction of our own minds and that we actually have no idea what our own reality is.
I don't think that "reality" can be placed in one category. There are things that surely exist outside of human conception- such as the sky and the trees, and even time. Though the earth, along with the basis of time, existed long before humans, time is very much a mental construction- individuals perceive time very differently based on their emotions, etc. Though it is a physical "reality", time is also a construction of the mind.

Colette's picture

               In our

               In our discussion s this past week, I found it very interesting how our opening discussion began with a poem by Emily Dickinson. Typically, literature and science are considered separate and somewhat unrelated disciplines. I found that relating the two fields in one discussion highlighted the fact that perhaps these two fields are not so unrelated and certainly are not in opposition to each other. I found Emily Dickinson’s view of the “construction of the brain” quite insightful.  The point she seems to be making is that the brain can encompass physically huge objects like the sky or sea. She doesn’t suggest that the brain can physically contain these immense objects, but that the brain can preserve them as perceptions in memory and manipulate them as ideas. These are extremely powerful capabilities which is possibly why she puts the brain in the context of an all powerful God.

Michelle brought up an interesting point that perhaps everything is just an illusion. I found the idea to be interesting however I think one must remember that some of these ideas physically exist and we have proof and information to show that creations do exist. Then again, in the book Blink by Maxwell Gladwell, Gladwell argues that too much information clouds the mind in making important decisions. Perhaps this “proof” we have of the brain and its creations are just clouding the main point of the brain which we still cannot see!

Paul Grobstein's picture

where do ideas come from?

I like the idea that the brain can "manipulate ... ideas."  But the ideas themselves?  Does the "preserve" things outside itself as "ideas," or does it create them? For more along these lines, see avoiding reality and its problems

rkirloskar's picture

My Thoughts


I do not believe that everything we see is a construction of the mind. People think and behave differently due to different environments, circumstances, upbringing, and experiences that force them to develop different mindsets. If everything is a construction of our minds, and all of us think differently, then we should all see different things. This is the same reason why people have different dreams, as dreams are a reflection of our state of mind at a particular time. But if we all think differently, why do we share the same reality? Since I do not have a scientific explanation for this, I would like to draw light upon the philosophy of Hinduism, which says that all suffering arises from our false conception of the self. It is from this idea of the self from which ego arises. There is no “I”, instead “we” are all part of the universal soul. According to Hinduism, we are born to suffer and pay for the sins of our past lives. Once we have paid for these sins, we attain moksha or freedom from rebirth or freedom from being attached to a physical form; we become part of the universal soul. I think that this philosophy makes sense because if we are all part of the same universal soul, that would mean that we share the same mind and therefore the same reality.


Bharath Vallabha's picture

illusion and construction

The connection between Hinduism and the idea that everything is a construction of the mind is very interesting. You say that Hinduism shows that everything is not a construction of the mind, and your argument is compelling. Though perhaps one can make the opposite argument in the following way. According to Hinduism, our ordinary perception of the world is an illusion (maya). Ordinarily our perceptions suggest that in the world objectively there is duality and multiplicity; I see that I am not the table or that the table is not the chair. But our ordinary perceptions are mistaken because there is no duality in the world; there is only oneness. So our ordinary perceptions are not objective and are only constructions of the mind which creates a sense of duality when in fact there is no such duality. On this argument, it is the overall oneness of the world which suggests that everything we normally see is actually a construction of the mind. I think it is very thought provoking how one can draw from the same premise (the oneness of the world or the universal self) different conclusions ( that the world is a construction of the mind as the above argument suggests, and that it isn't, as your argument suggests.)

Paul Grobstein's picture

illusion, moksha, and the brain

Perhaps we actually do all see/think more differently than we normally recognize?  And perhaps moksha is an aspiration rather than something that has been/could be achieved?  The relation between Hindu teachings and neurobiology is more than worth further exploration.  See Re-imagining the sacred self and Conquering the I-function. See also The unconscious as bridging the intellectual/spiritual and the academic/personal and Vulnerability, heaven, and reason.

kdilliplan's picture

Some Questions About Observations

The idea that everything we observe and think about is merely a construct of our brains is an interesting one, but I don’t think it is actually the case. It is one thing to say that the brain is bigger than the sky because we are capable of holding our feelings and observations of the sky in our brains along with a seemingly limitless amount of other information, but going so far as to say there is nothing bigger than the brain and that other things are only constructs of the brain seems fanciful and romanticized to me.  It is true that the sky can trigger any number of powerful emotions in us, but if we can put those feelings aside and think about the sky objectively, we can observe, describe and even quantify it with reliable consistency.  That is, so many people think and feel similarly about the sky.  It seems unlikely that such standardized observations could be made if people are as unique and different from one another as we want to believe.  

I think one of two things are going on in this case: 1) we are all making similar observations of something that exists outside of our brains or 2) we are all similar enough to one another that if our observations are constructs of our brains, we are not as unique as we claim.  I think the first scenario is more likely. However, if it is not true (i.e. if everything we observe is a construct of our brains), does that mean that the universe as we know it came into being the minute we evolved the brain capacity to observe it? Does it mean the universe as we know it will cease to be if humans go extinct or evolve some new mental capacity? Since animals (supposedly) do not think the same way humans do, do they exist in separate universes?  What about inanimate objects or organisms that don’t think at all?  Does the universe even exist for them? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and the universe "as we know it"

Maybe the key here, as we talked about a bit in class, is the "as we know it" phrase.  Yes, "the universe as we know it will cease to be if humans go extinct or evole some new mental capacity"?  Yes, "animals ... exist in separate universes", ones different from the universe as we know it (cf Thomas Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?").  No, the universe as we know it does not exist for inanimate things.  And perhaps not for many animate things either.  Indeed, maybe the universe as "we" know it does make us less "unique and different from one another" than we actually are/could be/might sometimes prefer?

Schmeltz's picture

Emily Dickinson and the Brain

Well, I've been trying to deduce whether I think all behavior is a result of the brain, but instead I seem to be more concerned with whether or not Emily Dickinson actually subscribed to that belief. Yes, the poem seems to suggest that all behavior is a result of the brain - the physical entity that has a capacity larger than the sky and the ability to construct both you and I and all else; however, I feel this is too reductionist.  I feel like the poem may be interpreted that way by individuals who already subscribe to that particular mode of thinking to enhance their belief. I've been reading some of Dickinson's poetry, and she repeatedly refers to the "mind" and thoughts of the mind, and sometimes it seems as if, to her, "brain" and "mind" are synonymous.  For example "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind - As if my Brain had split -- I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam -- But could not make it fit."  How are brain and mind different here? I wonder if she had truly differentiated between brain and mind.  Maybe she had - maybe she thought the mind was a construction of the brain.  More interestingly to me, though, is her reference to a soul.  Is a "soul" also a construction of the brain to her?  "A Thought Went up my Mind To-day" is a fun poem, where she writes about a particular thought, not knowing where or why it came, but that somewhere in her "soul" she had "met the thing before".  Clearly, she believed in a soul, whether or not her idea of "soul" is a construction of the brain or mind or just a spiritual, inexplicable thing, separate from the brain or mind, I do not know.  I think I would like to believe that there is something beyond the brain, the nervous system, and the chemical reactions, that is responsible for our personal behavior.  I think I would like to believe that there is a spiritual, inexplicable component to life, but maybe that could be because it is intrinsic in human beings to "crave the sense of a mysterious world stretching infinitely beyond" (E.O. Wilson, Biophilia). Maybe, I first and foremost consider Emily Dickinson to be a poet and an artist and this is why I do not want to believe that she thinks like a scientist.  Although, as I am reading Biophilia, I am becoming convinced that the two are very much linked and both disciplines possess similar motives, but that is an entirely different topic.  Bottom line, most logically, I would agree that yes, the brain is responsible for all behavior, but there is a part of me that would like to believe in something deeper and non-material.  Attributing everything to a material object seems to simplify things and make them more comprehensible.  I am not by any means saying the brain is simple - in fact there potentially exists a limitless amount of research left to be done on it.  It is just easier to say that it is the brain, because the brain, being a physical entity, can be studied. A "soul", if one does exist for everyone, and if it is in fact separate from the brain, cannot really be studied or tested so it complicates things for us.  We want to prove, we want to theorize, and we want to stumble upon truths.  That's all great, but when we die, when our brains seize to function, do all the thoughts and garbage that we stored up there go too?  Does everything, all our constructions, all of our ideas, our sense of identity go?  I guess I'm struggling because I consider the "it's all brain" argument to also mean there is no spirituality, but perhaps spirituality is merely a construction.  Now, I feel like I'm going in circles...        

Paul Grobstein's picture

Dickinson and death

Was Dickinson actually a Dickinsonian?  Very interesting question, as per below.  Want to take a crack at it for a web paper? 

"I trust everybody recognizes that Dickensonionism reflects my story/summary of the observations that are Dickinson's poem, and that other stories/summaries of those observations are of course possible?  See Schmeltz for more along these lines." (Descartes et al vs Dickinson et al and other sundries)

"but when we die, when our brains seize to function, do all the thoughts and garbage that we stored up there go too?" is another very interesting question. How about the following .... 

"the fact that "self-identity" is material needn't be understood to mean that it ceases to exist with the dissolution of a particular material entity" (Sense of personal identity: whence cometh? and where goeth?)

molivares's picture

more on "The Americanization of Mental Illness"

     On the first day of class, while we were discussing neurobiology and behavior and where it is going in the future, we talked about the New York Times article called “The Americanization of Mental Illness.” I was deeply intrigued by this article because I think it pertains to an angle that really resonates with my interests – health and cross-cultural understanding of health and medicine. The article discusses how the Western biomedical model of mental illness is expanding across the globe much like cultural imperialism.  Eating disorders, which have been a prominent epidemic here in the U.S., are becoming more and more prominent in Hong Kong and across the globe. Is it because of our present Western culture and the social norms it propels are expanding East and triggering eating disorders that can be rationalized through that expanding culture and its social norms? Is it because Western biomedical ideas are suggesting to the rest of the world that mental illness should be understood as more of a disease that can be diagnosed through specific criteria listed in the DSM and less of a psycho/social/cultural phenomenon? Who’s to say that this list of criteria in the DSM can be applied globally? And even if it is applied globally, who’s to say that this biomedical understanding of mental illness will benefit all patients worldwide?

    Those who are strong proponents (mental-health providers, drug companies, etc) of the biomedical model of mental illness claim that explaining mental illness as a “brain disease” that is out of the patient’s control will reduce the stigma that surrounds people with mental illness.  By medicalizing so-called mental illnesses and,  “Once people believed that the onset of mental illnesses did not spring from supernatural forces, character flaws, semen loss or some other prescientific notion, the sufferer would be protected from blame and stigma.” (NY Times, January 8, 2010).

     However, what I really found interesting was Professor Sheila Mehta’s study which found this logic to be more assailable than proponents of the mental-illness-as-brain-disease may want to believe. In her cleverly designed study, she found that people who claimed their mental illness to be a disease rooted in biology and genetics were more stigmatized and judged more harshly than people who provided a psychosocial/cultural explanation for their mental illness (to read more about Mehta’s study, see article). And so it seems that the biomedical frame of reference may not be beneficial to everyone with a mental illness.  Other studies, conducted outside of the lab, claim the same results.  So while we accept and promote this biomedical model of mental health within our own Western society, we must understand not everyone in the world views the brain and mental health in the same way we do.          


Paul Grobstein's picture

alternative models of mental health

I too was intrigued by the suggestion that "mental illness" as "disease" was not effective at lessening stigma.  That might be worth following up on for a web paper.  For some thoughts about ways to think about mental health in terms other than the "medical model," see Models of mental health: a critique and a prospectus.

egleichman's picture

Person Perception

I guess this comment is sort of a continuation of my introduction, but it seems to fit well with some of the material at hand, especially the claim by Emily Dickenson that everything is an idea, a creation, a construction of the brain, and therefore the brain is bigger than all else.  

Isn't this true not only for things and ideas, but also for the people we know, or think we know, and are close to? What could we possibly claim to know about a person, even (and perhaps especially) one we are close to, besides the representation they are obligated to provide for us? Perhaps human behavior, then, serves as a means of hiding, enhancing, altering, and showing off what we find to be true about ourselves. In that way, isn't everything we see in the people around us a function of the brain? Don't we have selective knowledge that we use to filter the behavior of others and shape our perception so that we see what we want to see in ourselves and in the people we're close to? And isn't that limiting in its own way?  

Paul Grobstein's picture

constructing others and ourselves

" Perhaps human behavior, then, serves as a means of hiding, enhancing, altering, and showing off ..."

An intriguing idea, with two parts.  That we try to shape others by our perceptions of them, and that we try to shape ourselves by trying to control the perceptions of others?  The former is more widely explored, both in psychological research and in relation to the psychoanalytic concepts of projection and transference.  The latter .... might take some more digging.  Maybe there's a web paper in here somewhere?

ewippermann's picture

Biologizing Philosophy


Any amount scientific inclination makes the brain = behavior argument seem irrefutable. It’s a scary idea, and I feel programmed by natural selection, but the perspective is very critical to scientific understanding and epitomizes modern philosophic thought—philosophy is being biologized. There is no “mind” to argue about, no blank slate or collective unconscious, there are only nerve axons, synapses, genes, and evolution.
Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct introduced me to the theory that language is an inherited instinct, and that application of evolution made me really want to explore new applications. As a result of further readings (including Richard Dawkins, more Pinker, and Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain), I now believe religion, god, spirituality, morality, love, self-awareness, musicality, math, and language are all functions of the brain that are present because they help our species survive.
Something I think is monumental about this tract of thought: if brain = behaviour, similarities between humans greatly overshadow the differences. Every human exposed to language within the developmental window will acquire language, a language that shares a Universal Grammar with every other spoken language because it generates from the same parts of the brain. Religious sentiments are and have been present in every recorded culture; we are the only known species to be self-aware, and to therefore have knowledge of our death, to fear it, and through natural selection, developed a “god part of the brain” that allows us to mentally transcend our physical fears and restraints. What individuals feel to be “moral” is nearly universal, and every society and culture encountered by anthropologists displays astonishing similarities. Sociobioloist Robin Fox said it like this, using the example of a hypothetical society of children untouched by the rest of the world:
“I do not doubt that they [the children] could speak and that, theoretically, given time, they or their offspring would invent and develop a language despite their never having been taught one. Furthermore, this language, although totally different than any known to us, would be analyzable to linguists on the same basis as other languages and translatable into all known languages. But I would push this further. If our new Adam and Eve could survive and breed—still in total isolation of any cultural influences—then eventually they would produce a society which would have laws about property, rules about incest and marriage, customs of taboo, a system of social status, courtship practices including the adornment of females, dancing, schizophrenia, homosexuality, initiation ceremonies for young men, myths and legends, and beliefs about the supernatural and practices relating to it.”
I think the belief that brain=behavior brings to light so many similarities in our species that, if every widely accepted, could really change how humans see the world and how we conduct their lives.


Paul Grobstein's picture

finding space in the brain beyond programming?

I like the "could really change how humans see the world and how we conduct our lives" idea.  But, "programmed by natural selection", with inevitably "laws about property, rules about incest and marriage, customs of taboo" is less appealing, for me at least.  Perhaps "human nature," the brain's way, is as much about differences as about similarities, with differences being the grist from which new as yet unconceived possibilities arise?   Cf Variability in brain function and behavior and Noise in the nervous system.

aeraeber's picture

Brains and Reality





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Continuing on the brain=behavior topic. We looked at sponges in during oceanography lab this week, and it got me thinking about the discussion we had in class that the brain and behavior are one and the same.  Sponges don’t have brain, or a nervous system of any kind, but if response to stimuli is a form of behavior, then sponges certainly behave. They react to changes in the water current in their adult stage, and some are capable of swimming in their larval stage.  Maybe in this case the individual cell nuclei can be considered to be the brain, since the cells of sponges act mostly independently?  But sponges also act as entire organisms, so maybe that isn’t the case?
The idea that the self and the mind are constructs of the brain makes sense to me, since both are ideas. They’re not concrete objects that can be experienced through the senses.  But then, the senses are a function of the brain as well, so how we interface with the world, how we experience it, is then wholly shaped by the brain. The things we see/touch/hear/taste/smell are all processed by the brain, but something must exist for the brain to interpret. So, in my opinion the idea that the world as experienced by humans is a construct of the brain doesn’t contradict the idea that an external reality exists as well.  This, to me, is what makes virtual reality technology so interesting, the idea that the brain can be "tricked" into making us experience an environment other than the one where we physically are. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

virtuality and behavior without nervous systems

Maybe virtual reality technology works because there is less distinction between the real and the virtual than we suspect? We've all been living in virtuality without knowing it? 

Yep, lots of organisms "behave" without having nervous systems, sponges and single cell organisms among them.  Might make an interesting web paper, reviewing what they do, how it is done,  and reflecting on the implications are for thinking about behavior in organisms that do have nervous systems.


AndyMittelman's picture

a few thoughts on "The Science of Romance"

I was particularly interested by the Time article we read, “The Science of Romance: Why We Love.” Kluger makes a variety of interesting points. Most notably, he discusses the purpose of romance. Initially, I had a difficult time accepting that romance is somewhat a means to an end. While perhaps a cynical viewpoint, this perspective aligns closely with some bio reading I did last semester. If any of you have read “Genome” by Matt Ridley or “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, these books present a similar approach to that suggested by Kluger. Specifically, if you think of our bodies as transport mechanisms for our genes, it would be only logical that “losing our faculties” would be worth the tradeoff of potential death.

     But is this still applicable? It seems that a tradeoff is necessary for an evolutionarily “correct” choice of mate. If humans could just mate without the potential danger, there is a risk that scrutiny might be reduced. As Kluger points out, discernment was (and is?) necessary for the most successful mate selection. So for a minute assume that the chemical releases generated by love could be attained without risking life of limb. That sounds a lot like current day. Romantic encounters take place in a variety of places, very few of them now involving predators (or at least “predators” in the conventional use of the word). Serious concerns people now have might include: I don’t want to get pregnant, I don’t want to get an STD, or I don’t want people to find out about this. I don’t know many people who have actively risked dying for the sake of love. I wonder how this reduced risk has affected our sexual choices. What if intimate contact was only permitted in situations of potential danger? If the only time you could be with your partner was in the middle of a busy street, how would that affect our choices? I imagine that people would be more selective of their partners; if you had to risk danger (as Kluger suggests that humans did originally when they risked distraction), certainly you would ensure that you are making the right choice of partner.

     I particularly enjoyed Kluger’s discussion of romantic feelings induced during an “altered” state. He cites examples such as drunken romance or the emergence of couples from emergency settings. For anyone interested by last year’s US Airways crash in the Hudson, Kluger’s comment is directly applicable to the latest high-profile couple to emerge from the drama. Passengers Laura Zych and Ben Bostic met in the crash and fell in love. (check out As Arthur Aron (SUNY Stony Brook) explains in the Kluger article, “people who meet during a crisis—an emergency landing of their airplane, say—may be much more inclined to believe they’ve found the person meant for them.” However, we may be “tricked” by our perception of the situation and we might be making a choice we might not normally make. Kluger also discusses the influence of drugs or alcohol. The happiness we perceive may be subconsciously associated to the person we encountered during the altered mental state. This seems to suggest that we should be mindful of drunken escapades or at least on-guard for an increased risk of falling falsely in love while in an altered mental state. A college friend of mine frequently cited his Sunday morning “moral hangovers” as a potential example of such altered mental state-induced romance. To reduce this risk, perhaps we should only look for love in a sober and stimulus-free state? Many common dating rituals (going out for drinks, doing something exciting together, etc.) may be confounding the selection process. But is a formal sit-down interview really a better option?

Paul Grobstein's picture

looking for mates, romance, or anything else

Is there a "stimulus free state"?  And if there was, why should it be a better context for mate choice, to say nothing of romance?

gloudon's picture

brain = behavior?


   So far there have been a lot of comments posted about how the brain equals behavior.  Most of them seem to be agreeing with this statement, and I too mostly agree with it.  In class we talked about behavior being a response to an internal or external stimulus.  So, if you have a kidney stone, and it hurts because it is blocking your kidney, and you are curled up in a ball in pain.  The kidney could be easily looked at as the stimulus.  Or, is it your kidney that is causing the behavior, and the brain is merely relaying the information? This is the question that is preventing me from completely agreeing with brain = behavior.  If the kidney's lack of function is the stimulus, and the brain is relaying the message to your body that you are in pain, then does the brain equal behavior?  Or is the brain center for relaying messages?  Then does stimulus equal behavior?  

   However, if you think of a none-physical stimulus, such as thinking about a bad grade, there is nothing but the brain to attribute your angry behavior.  In this case, there is no visual, auditory, or tactile stimulus.  You are simply remembering feelings you had.  Where else would these thoughts and feelings come from besides the brain?  So can the brain be its own stimulus?  

Or should we say that stimulus=brain=behavior?


Paul Grobstein's picture

Behavior and how many kinds of "stimuli"?

Interesting issue.  We've got, if I'm following you, at least three kinds of "stimulus."  Something originating in the outside world, something originating in the body but outside the nervous system, and something originating inside the nervous system. Maybe its important to acknowledge all three things but keep them distinct so we can give each attention in its own right? 

Congwen Wang's picture

My thoughts about brain and behaviors


I find “brain = behavior” is a very thought evoking idea. Although I have noticed that all of the “spiritual” things human have come from the brain, usually I still tend to think about the physical existence of brain and the behaviors separately. This is perhaps a legacy from how most people define our relationship with other animals – we are animals, but meanwhile we are not animals. And to may people, what makes homo sapiens different is our ability of creating thoughts, emotions, languages, etc. It is probably quite disturbing for many to see the idea that we are not different than any other animals – animals with considerably well developed nervous systems, at least – that all of our greatest creations are merely the result of some chemical reactions and electron transportation. And not mentioning that “the magic of love” is now totally reduced to nothing more than a shot of noradrenaline – how unromantic. On the other hand, I do appreciate this idea from a scientific perspective. Nervous system is the material base of all human behaviors. Just like our other organs’ structures determine their functions, the cells and chemicals in our brains determine how we think and act.
The only thing that I feel confused about is Emily Dickinson’s poem. I can understand “the brain is wider than the sky” in a poetic sense, but I am less than convinced by Professor Grobstein’s interpretation that everything is the construction of the brain. Surely one can argue that sky, as well as everything else in the world, has been processed by the brain, thus becoming a creation of the brain. But I find this leads to another question: what about the brain itself? There has to be something there that is not totally constructed by the brain, or there would be no brain in the first place. And since the brain does exist as a matter, so can other things in the world. I personally think it is better to stay with the statement that behaviors, instead of everything, are created by brains.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain as constructor and construction?

gouldbrainVery interesting question.  If everything is a construction of the brain, then ... so too must the brain be.  As per the image, by Kate Gould, to the right (click for enlargement). There is a thought, and from that derives an explanatory thought: the brain?  Which in turn makes sense of the thought? The brain both derives from and accounts for itself, in a recursive, self-referential loop?  Yes, it leaves us a bit hanging in space without a clear foundation.  A little uncomfortable perhaps, at first.  But maybe though that's where we belong?  Bootstrapping?  Start somewhere, and see if one can make sense from there of everything else, including where one started?


Saba Ashraf's picture

Complexity of the Brain

 One of the quotes we had briefly discussed that explained our mental life was the result of the activity of the “specks of jelly in your head, in your brain” was an idea I had never really thought about until this week in class. This quote happened to be one of the more interesting ones to me because it is in fact fascinating to think that so many memories, languages, emotions, and general thoughts are able to be stored inside a relatively small organ.   Even though it is a relatively small object, the brain’s capabilities are endless and much more complex than any computer we know of. The brain has given us the ability to recall certain childhood memories that occurred decades ago, differentiate between thousands of objects and living things, and think in very abstract ways. Another idea during class that I also found very interesting was the idea that the brain is a tangible and material object, but it is capable of producing emotions, which can’t be physically touched or measured.   What is even more intriguing is that so much has been discovered about the  brain, yet so many aspects of the mental life remain a mystery.   Even though we still have so much to learn about the brain, there is still a possibility that the brain may never be fully understood.  

 In terms of the adjectives of the word “science” we were to come up with during class, it was amusing to see the different words students would use to describe science. I also thought that the word “limited” was very interesting to use like ifrontino because personally I hadn’t seen science as limited, but quite the opposite because of the many advances and discoveries science has made, whether it is on land or out in the solar system.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

science (and the brain) as limited or ...

Intriguing issue indeed.  If one thinks of science as aspiring to Truth, then it is indeed obviously limited; there is so much we don't understand.  If one thinks of it as creating possibilities that have no previously existed (cf Science matters ... how?) , then it does, as you say, seem to be doing pretty well.  Maybe one could say the same thing about the brain? 

Jeanette Bates's picture

Starting Thoughts

            It is hard to argue against the premise that “brain=behavior.” Even something as crucial and valuable as moral judgment seems completely dependent on how the brain functions. As Pinker states in his article on morality, people with ‘normally-developed’ brains were not comfortable with throwing a large man in front of train in order to stop it from killing five other people. However, those who had ‘damaged frontal lobes,’ and therefore damaged emotions, did not see a difference between pressing a switch that would have the train kill one man instead of five and the afore mentioned situation. This shows that the way a person’s brain is built and whether or not it is considered normal by our standards will very much affect a person’s moral standing. I can extrapolate from that that it would affect their overall personality as well. If this fact is true, then the brain must be the same as behavior. Though I do think that the brain affects our behavior extraordinarily, I am also willing to argue that it is not the only thing that determines our behavior. I say this because of Watters’ article. His article showed that though people across many different cultures had what would be considered the same types of mental illnesses, the way those mental illnesses manifested themselves in the culture was different. In China, for example, it used to be that anorexic girls were not anorexic because they were concerned with fat and weight like American girls, but because they felt as if they had bloated stomachs. This shows that the same disease, which is most likely caused by the same ‘brain deficiency’, can come across very differently in different cultures. Therefore, it is my belief that behavior is not only a factor of the brain, but also a factor of culture -and perhaps even more things that we don't recognize.
            I definitely think that science is a story. Science often comes across as completely objective and factual. I believe that the reason why it seems that way is because scientists often try to approach everything with as little bias and with as much certainty as possible. I believe that scientists are increasingly concerned with publishing something that is ‘correct’ or at least publishing something that makes sense, and as a result, science is seen as a bunch of hard facts. Going beyond current methods, however, the main purpose of science is to make sense of the world. Though science seems more ‘factual’ than anything else, it is never completely certain, and it is ultimately just a human construct that is supposed to help us grasp the world through its story-telling, just as religion did in previous centuries. Because I think that scientific conclusions are not necessarily as true (i.e. it was once thought true that the world is flat. Now it is considered round) as much as they are a concept that the mind needs to create in order to understand the world, I think that having a ‘loopiness’ to the scientific method is helpful. In the end, all we find are implications, and these implications could easily be proven or disproven in the future. And if the implication reached does not end up working, then new observations can be reached, new implications reached, and new things discovered. Having a loopy scientific method helps us to explore the world better. It leaves more options open because it does not turn the observations into ‘hard facts’ or ‘truth.’ I think that making science a story and the scientific method into a loop is a good way to successfully make and summarize observations because these methods try to turn observations into some tangible understanding of the world while still recognizing that the observations could lead to or change into something else in the future. A good scientific story would, for example, say that anorexia is a mental illness and also leave open the possibility that culture and other factors could also affect the disease.

            The only thing that bothers me with these approaches to science is that there is a great lack of certainty. There may be no absolute truth, but some things have high certainty (i.e. pure silver should always sink in water). I think that sometimes, though it may be rare, there is such a thing as a ‘certain observation.’ There are a few observations that will always stay the same. I think that certainty is mostly important for the human psyche. If everything is uncertain, than the world becomes too foreign and unpredictable. People create these stories in the first place so that they can develop some sort of certainty and security. If that is lost, than humans start to feel uncomfortable and insecure, which causes them to question their role and purpose. Nevertheless it is really important to recognize that, in fact, almost nothing is certain or can be fully explained-we can only do our best to understand and come to terms with it. It is that very fact that I find the most exciting.   

Paul Grobstein's picture

certainty, culture, and the brain

I wonder if a desire for certainty is actually as fundamental a characteristic of human nature as many people think it is.  See Inverting the relationship between randomness and meaning.  Maybe here too we're dealing with a culturally encouraged expression rather than an inevitability?  Its also worth thinking about whether culture is something in addition to the brain, or something that influences behavior by influencing the brain?  See The brain and social organization/culture

Lauren McD's picture


I thought the discussion on the sky being 'smaller' than the brain because it 'fits inside' the brain was extremely interesting. Although the relations of size don't make too much sense to me, I can certainly understand the provoking ways the human brain relates to the rest of the world. Is everything in our world just an image of our perceptions? What really makes a certain color? Is something blue only because we interpret it as blue? Did the color blue exist before human eyes were there to see it? Such intriguing questions quickly lead down a slippery slope, disintegrating the world as we know it. Even more interesting is how we define certain, deep words. While Webster can give a plethora descriptions to define words such as friendship, love, and God, our own perceptions of these words are what defines them individually. Many people would agree a good friend is someone who is supportive, motivating, uplifting, etc. But if someone truly believes a good friend is someone who is able to loan money or just to talk to about superficial topics, then that is what friendship means to them. Words are what we define them as with the ideas and images that we associate with them. One word can hold thousands of different meanings for thousands of different people. The idea that one word is defined by whatever we believe in is intriguing to me. Anything we know of in this world is a direct result of the human mind's classification. This begs the question of the significance of the things in our world that have not been discovered yet by mankind. Do they exist if no one is aware of their existence? Can they be defined by our classifications if no one can classify them? What defines them if we do not classify words to define them? These questions all relate to how the human mind has influence on the world and what defines existence.

Paul Grobstein's picture

words, classifications, and existence

Its interesting indeed to think about why we tend to treat certain ideas (blueness) as "universal" while we know perfectly well that others (eg, friendship) mean different things to different people.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a big impact by noting, as you do, that the words we use constitute our definitions of things.  Its worth wondering though if there might be ways to "classify" things that don't depend on words.  Other animals seem to "classify" without words.  As do human infants.  Perhaps we do as well? 

lfrontino's picture

   Definition of Science


 One thing I was pretty shocked about during discussion this week was the reaction to descriptions of science. It seems that there is a direct dichotomy between the humanities and science majors in the classroom and their opinions on the subject. Although a science major, I have am fascinated with literature and hope to get enough classes to do an English minor. This being said, perhaps I am just able to see the close relationship between the sciences and the humanities better than someone with experience in just one of theses areas.
When asked if science was objective, I was a little offended to hear everyone respond so strongly with a ‘no.’ I was surprised to hear science described as ‘limited,’ ‘fact-based,’ and ‘empirical.’ I don’t think people always think about the fact that although science is based on “facts,” these facts were originally created by humans. Science is really just an agreed-upon set of explanations for processes which were previously unable to be explained by humans. In the same way that a main interpretation of a poem is usually agreed upon by literary critics. In this way, science cannot possibly be objective. 
In addition, I was very intrigued by the idea that everything is a construct of the brain, but I'm still a bit confused by it. Saying that everything is merely created by the brain does make sense, but what about things that have not been able to be explained by humans yet? If our own brain is doing the construction, if everything is indeed within our own 'minds,' shouldn't this make all knowledge and understandings more accessible for humans? 


Paul Grobstein's picture

human understanding and accessibility

Maybe there is lots going on in our brain, lots of constructing, that is relatively inaccessible to us?

ewippermann's picture


I can understand your offense, but I think skepticism of science is very useful. Objectivity in anything is impossible, and while science comes the closest of all the fields, someone (with money) has to be funding the science, and unless it's an extreme display of altruism, research is only funded when it will benefit a corporation or organization or government by yielding more money or power. The pharmaceutical industry is an example of this. 

smkaplan's picture

More on 'objectivity'

Maybe it's not that science isn't 'objective'—it's that the very idea of objectivity is problematic.

Last semester I read Donna Haraway's 'Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective' in a gender studies class. It's a really great essay, there's a lot of stuff in there, but one of the main arguments is that historically, the idea of 'objectivity' has essentially served as an excuse for scientists—generally wealthy, white men—to decide what information counts as 'truth' and what doesn't.

I agree with Liz that we need to remember that scientific 'facts' are always 'created' by humans—at the very least simply because all information requires some human interpreter to make sense of it. In that sense, it seems reasonable to talk about the natural world as a construction of the brain, because even if all that stuff might still 'exist' without us, it becomes meaningful only after we invest it with meaning.

Back to the Haraway essay for a second—her primary concern is how to reconcile these two things I just mentioned: the seeming existence of a natural world about which we can make observations; and the fact that those observations may be only tangentially linked to that natural world itself, given that they must be interpreted and reinterpreted by other human beings in order for us to derive meaning from them.

There's no simple solution, of course, but Haraway seems to suggest that one thing we can do to help is to carefully consider where information is coming from—an idea she calls 'situated knowledge.' All knowledge comes from somewhere, of course, and by paying attention to the context of that knowledge—does it come from a discourse that is traditionally excluded from the category of 'objective truth?' Is the source of knowledge marginalized in some way or in a position of power? etc.—we can temper our desire to explain the world with some healthy skepticism, and perhaps even keep our heads in situations like the one Emma talked about, where various institutions use wealth or influence to attempt to control what kinds of knowledge are supported or, contrarily, suppressed.

It seems like the goal of this class is kind of similar, that we're trying to give voices to a bunch of different ways of understanding science, some of which aren't really tolerated by traditional science courses or scientists. I like this approach, because I feel like at the end of the day, we're the ones who'll have a richer and more dynamic understanding of science, while the traditional scientists will still be stuck on their restrictive definitions of 'objectivity' and 'truth.'

If anyone wants to read that Donna Haraway essay, I uploaded it here:

Paul Grobstein's picture

objectivity, subjectivity, and the relation between them

Glad to have you (and Haraway) aboard.  For another take on the objectivity issue, see Having one's cake and eating it too

emily's picture

 Even though there are many

 Even though there are many "things that have not been able to be explained by humans yet", they can still be imagined and thought about and thus perceived by the brain even if not directly. Even things without names, things you don't have images for, things you don't fully understand: if you can think of the idea, and there is the possibility for you to understand that idea more fully, it exists.

Paul Grobstein's picture

brain as creator

Yep, so the brain "constructs"/creates.  See Science/brain is limited or ...? above. 

mcurrie's picture

Something different

 Hi, everyone, so I know we're on the path toward looking at the brain and what can be stored and created as our own reality or illusion. However you want to see it. I wanted to pick on what we first discussed, the lovely quotes. I find it interesting that we have come to show how love works, or how we think it works, taking away the magic of the emotion and placing it in more scientific terms of the visionary and chemical. We take out the mystery and it seems like the fun of the belief in the fantasy. Or with moral intuitions, like knowing what is right and wrong. I always liked thinking that it comes from the heart or I guess the conscience. The little voice in your head that you like to listen to and figure if you're doing the right thing. Why not leave it as our own little Geppetto who warns us when we are heading in the wrong direction? I know that it is great to explore and figure out the mysteries, question everything that comes into your path and then suddenly bring it into terms that make sense. Like Galileo, Darwin, and Freud challenging beliefs that sometimes make us feel better about ourselves, about the unexpected. Going through this course and trying to understand the wonders of the brain and behavior, trying to make sense of what they are. I would like to keep some of my fantasies and belief in magic. Going back to love I like to read about what it is, what has been discovered but I also like to keep a little mystery tucked within. I like to combine the old with the new information I learn about but when some of the new information tries to take away the fun of the imagination I sometimes want to ignore it, and keep some of the wonder. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and mystery

Maybe you don't have to worry about it?  Maybe the mystery isn't something out there (or even in here) to be discovered but rather something that we're making in here, a capacity of the brain to create out of existing understandings things worthy of further exploration?

emily's picture

Illusions and Reality

 I agree with you, kgould. Believed "knowledge" and "truths" become our reality. Michelle, you ask, "if everything is really just "a construction of the brain" then is it considered an illusion?" Illusions expose the possibility that our vision is not always veridical, or, does not accurately portray the world all the time. Something is considered an illusion when our perceptions of that thing do not meet our expected perceptions of reality. However, one must consider a standard for reality in order to give this definition meaning; the standard for reality and veridicality depends on one's expectations and background beliefs about what is normal. So, to answer your question, if everything is really a "construction of the brain", it is still our reality and not an illusion because we accept it as truth. 


Here is an example concerning the convergence of railroad tracks that I hope helps to illustrate my point:

Some might consider the convergence of railroad tracks to be an illusion because we "know" they run parallel in reality, but they appear to converge to us.

Objects that are farther away take up less space on the retina and thus appear smaller to us. The farther away railroad tracks get, the less space they take up on our retina and the smaller they appear; convergence is the constancy of this fact. Although we know the train tracks remain parallel in reality, we expect them to appear to converge because it seems normal to us and does not defy our expectations of perception. In fact, if we saw an image of train tracks that remained parallel, we might consider that image to be an illusion because it would defy our expected perceptions of reality, since we expect points farther away in our visual field to appear smaller.

The convergence of train tracks is an example of a phenomena that is our reality rather than an illusion because it goes along with our expectations of what is normal. 

meroberts's picture

What is normal?

Emily, I think yours is an interesting point of view to bring to the conversation about everything in the world being a construction of our brain. I personally feel fairly comfortable with this idea but I do have reservations about this topic. I agree that everything we perceive is a construct, but I would say that it is more than just the brain that influences the way in which it is perceived. I believe culture and society and individual/group value systems also determine the construction of the object. For example, the sky in Emily Dickinson's poem is a construct of the mind/brain. But Emily Dickinson might think about the sky differently than another person. One could associate the sky with a religiously and culturally influenced perception of something holy. It could also be viewed as an integral part of our atmosphere, responsible for precipitation, which in turn creates water vapor that absorbs harmful sunlight.

The way people view the world is influenced by their societies and cultural understandings. There is a hotly debated example of this involving terms for snow in the Eskimo Inupiat language:

 Many people debate whether or not these particular Eskimo people actually have more words for snow than an English-speaker, but the idea is still the same. It would make sense for someone who is constantly surrounded by snow to have a diverse repertoire of words conveying different meanings about the snow. Because snow is important to this culture, there are different ways of interpreting what may seem to us to be one thing.

So what is normal does indeed influence the way we construct objects in our minds, but what is assumed to be "normal" can vary across, and even within, cultures and its subgroups. The best brains are the ones that can appreciate other variations of "normal".